Safe as houses

The UK's obsession with the plight of the first-time buyer shows that young people live in a small world.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Does the UK government’s Office for Fair Trading need to conduct an investigation in order to tell us that some estate agents are rogues? Probably not. Do we need a constant stream of reports by building societies to alert us to the difficulties facing first-time housebuyers in the south of England? Hardly. But there’s nothing the British middle classes love better than a whinge about property – particularly when your mortgage is apparently the most important thing in your life.

The news headlines produced by BBC News in March alone show the emotive levels reached by the first-time buyer discussion. ‘Tough times for first-time buyers –
a report from the Bradford & Bingley suggests many UK first-time buyers are struggling to come up with a deposit to buy a home’; ‘The long wait to get a foot in the door –
making that all important first step on the housing ladder is getting even harder’; ‘First-time buyer speaks out – Mark Wood has a well-paid job but is still struggling to afford a home of his own’; ‘Price bar hits first-time buyers – first-time buyers cannot afford to buy a home in 80 per cent of UK towns, a Halifax bank survey suggests’.

To read such articles you’d think the plight of the first-time buyer symbolises some great new social injustice, that denies middle-class children the human right to own a riverside apartment all of their very own. But what’s the story here, really? Why should this debate have escaped the confines of dinner parties and building society conventions, to become part of the news wires’ staple diet?

There is clearly a problem with the UK property market. The shortage of property in the south means that boxy apartments and bog-standard houses in London’s squashed suburbs sell for silly money. While the myth persists that a mortgage is three times an individual’s salary, it clearly is not; while the government seems serious about its intention to build ‘affordable’ housing, there remains the question of whether it is the kind of housing in which anybody actually wants to live.

But it is not these practical problems about housing supply that gives rise to the weekly headline horror stories. In our uptight, insecure society, one’s position on the property market has become one of the few remaining indicators of self-worth and security. Which seems like a fair enough preoccupation for fortysomethings, but a depressingly mundane distraction for young professionals in their twenties.

In itself, the symbolic character of home ownership is not new. For anybody other than the aristocracy, earning enough to put a roof over the head of one’s new family has been a traditional part of growing up – with paying a mortgage in place of rent associated with status and stability, and paying off the mortgage a sign of secure retirement. And of course, it is also the case that from the shopkeeper’s fantasy to the uninspired Thatcherite reality of a ‘property-owning democracy’ (a grandiose phrase for an opportunistic policy allowing people to buy their council houses), the more British life and politics have shrunk and shrivelled, the greater the emotional investment Britons have made in their bricks and mortar.

But this is very different to the discussion about home ownership today – in particular, the media-driven breast-beating about the plight of the first-time buyer. For while home ownership might always have expressed a rather limited ambition, at least this aspiration was tied up with a sense of personal progression, family expansion, adulthood and responsibility. Today’s debate, if anything, seems to express the opposite sentiments.

The standard case study of the first-time buyer, which tends to be published alongside news reports about this or that new building society survey, generally concerns a London-dwelling professional, in his or her late twenties, with no partner, no kids, and a fixation with the nicer parts of town. So Mark Wood, the BBC’s most recent case study, earns £45,000 with ‘about £5000 of savings’, and while he currently rents ‘a large house in a quiet street with two friends’, he now wants to buy somewhere – but not in the ‘down at heel’ places he can afford (2).

Poor Mark has received a fair bit of stick by respondents to the BBC’s ‘have your say’ invitation, who have implied that he is either a loser or a spendthrift, or told him to move out of London if he can’t take the heat. But while some might not sympathise with Mark’s predicament, he is clearly not unique in his situation. It is because first-time buyers increasingly seem to be People Like Mark – single professionals reaching the end of their youth – that this issue has gained its peculiarly emotive quality.

The days when ‘first-time buyers’ meant young couples struggling to get a roof over the heads of their children are gone. While, of course, young families do still exist, the focus of the housing market discussion is on the trend towards later (if ever) marriage and childbearing, and the particular section of society (middle-class professionals) where this trend is most clearly expressed. Fewer people are marrying, and those who do are pushing 30 when they get hitched and over 30 when they procreate. While most couples have two wages to play with, increasing numbers of youngish people are living on their own.

These social shifts presumably have an impact upon the housing market, pushing property demand away from the family starter home and towards swish little childfree apartments in regenerated areas. But more important is what these trends, coupled with a growing obsession with property ownership, say about the outlook and expectations of the younger generation.

In cultural terms, a first home now tends to be seen, less as something involving financial struggles and a necessary compromise on the way to a future of responsible adulthood, but as an affordable-but-desirable affirmation of one’s life as it just is, today. There seems to be an expectation that people will move out of home with Mum and Dad into a little place with comparable creature comforts, a fortress of their very own from which they can do battle with friends, relationships, and anything else that might intrude upon their personal space.

This is not about independence, or future opportunities, or even making a fast buck. If anything, it’s the opposite – an attempt to go straight from childhood to the security of mortgage and middle age, bypassing the traditional grotty bedsits and filthy flatshares, and refusing to leave the comfortable safety of the parental home for anything less. And the most frequently aired justification for this is that property is a pension – you are never too young to start worrying about this, and in our cheating, messed-up world, all you can rely upon is breeze-blocks.

In this, you have the modern image of the first-time buyer: an infantile adult already headed for retirement. How very dull indeed.

(1) First time buyer speaks out, BBC News 16 March 2004

(2) First time buyer speaks out, BBC News 16 March 2004

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Topics Politics


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